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KARL-OTTO APEL

COMMENTS ON DAVI DSON


Being not in possession of Professor Davidson's text, I prepared my
comments on his present paper with the aid of his previous papers,
especially his recent elaboration on ' A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs',
which he was kind enough to send me 1. As far as I can see, this reading
helped me indeed to understand the point of his present paper; or, at
least, I hope so.
Now, regarding this paper, let me immediately and, so to speak,
spontaneously express my impressions with respect to the second thesis,
which I consider to make up the main point of the paper. This point, it
seems to me, confronts us with a new Davidsonian position, which more
or less overthrows the well-known older position of papers like ' Truth
and Meaning' or ,'Radical Interpretation' and still of ' Thought and
Talk' . 2 And I should confess at the beginning that the new position
looks rather puzzling to me, such that I feel stimulated to defend the
earlier Davidson against the new one.
Using Professor Davidson' s new terminology, I could say that my
own "prior theory" with regard to his position was something like this:
Starting out from, and developing further, approaches of Carnap,
Tarski and Quine, Professor Davidson elaborated in a series of papers
what I would call a semanticist theory of "radical interpretation", i.e., of
understanding utterances of sentences of a natural language on the
basis of evidence available before interpretation has begun. I am using
the term semanticist in characterizing his approach because it seemed
to me to make up a counter-position to extremely pragmaticist ap-
proaches to almost the same problem, as, e.g., the intentionalist
approach of Paul Grice 3. The difference between the two approaches to
the problem of radical interpretation could perhaps be explicated by the
following distinctions:
Whereas Grice tried to reduce what he called "timeless meaning" of
"utterance types" to "utterer' s occasion meaning" and thereby finally
to pre-linguistic intentions of agents of purposive-rational actions,
Davidson, on the other side, seemed to repudiate this type of approach
by arguments like the following:
Synthese 59 (1984) 19-26. 0039-7857/84/0591-0019 $00.80
1984 by D. Reidel Publishing Company
20
KARL- OTTO APEL
(1) It is completely unclear (unintelligible) how we could conceive of
the fine differentiations of human intentions and beliefs - in contra-
distinction, say, to the problematic mental states of a dog - without
presupposing the possibility of understanding their actual or at least
potential expression (and hence articulation) by sentences whose
meanings are pre-structured by the whole recursive structure of a
language as a "word-sentence system", so to speak.
(2) In as far as utterances of sentences are actually used, in order to
realize intentions of the speakers that lie beyond, or deviate from, the
linguistically pre-structured conventional meanings of sentences, as,
e.g., in so-called perlocutionary actions of warning, insulting, persuad-
ing, etc., thus far the utterances are in fact purposive-rational actions
that must be subj ect to teleological explanations that could draw on
decision-theory. But even if such explanations have only to do with
extralinguistic actions, the testing of the teleological explanations
must rely on the use of language, and hence a semantical theory of
verbal interpretation must be added to the action-theory to be tested 4.
Thus far, I understood, even the radical understanding of the non-
linguistic intentions of human agents is dependent on the public
meaning of linguistic signs which we as human beings can share with
our communication-partners.
(3) The semantic theory of verbal interpretation may have the
logical form of a recursive account of the truth-conditions of all
possible sentences, or rather utterances of sentences, of a natural
language. The sought for truth-conditions may be empirically testified
to by the observable correlation between sentences held true by their
utterers and concomitant states of affairs.
I may confess that I found myself in great sympathy with at least part
of Davidson' s tenets for the following reasons: It seemed (to be)
plausible to me - especially as an achievement of this century' s
overcoming of psychologism - that the public medium, so to speak, of
meaning, as it is constituted by the syntactic and semantic rules of a
language-system, should make up the tendentially intersubjective con-
dition of the possibility of communicative experience, i. e., of that
special type of cognition that is possible and necessary for us with
respect to the communicative intentions of our co-subj ects of cog-
nition.
I found this latter point reconfirmed by Professor Davidson' s insight
that, in order to be able to understand other people' s utterances, or, for
COMMENTS ON DAVI DSON 21
that matter, beliefs, we must presuppose a common background of
agreement about what is true (I would even add: and about what is
right!). In this context, I was especially impressed by Davidson' s paper
' The Method of Truth in Metaphysics' , 5 where he states that "in sharing
a l anguage, in whatever sense this is required for communication, we
share a picture of the world that must, in its large features, be true (my
emphasis). "6 From this insight, which corresponds to the hermeneutic
"principle of charity", Professor Davidson, I understood, derived his
double programme of studying the structure of reality in the light of
radically understanding natural language and at the same time studying
the meaning of linguistic utterances in the light of shared truth, i.e., of
an attempted identification of the truth-conditions of sentences held
true by their utterers with those states of affairs we ourselves hold to be
facts.
Besides these agreements, though, I also had some troubles with what
I felt was one-sided in Davidson' s semanticist approach. It took into
account only (merely) the truth-conditions of propositional sentences,
or rather, of the propositional part of the performative-propositional
double-structure of explicit sentences in the sense analysed by the later
Austin and expecially by J. R. Searle. I would have preferred to see
Davidson' s semantic theory of interpretation supplemented not only by
a theory of explaining purposive-rational actions, but, moreover, by a
semantic and pragmatic theory of the meaning of linguistic modes,
performative sentences, and of "illocutionary force", including Grice' s
"conversational implicatures". 7 All these phenomena appeared to me
to lie in between the subject area of Davidsonian semantics and a
theory Of teleological explanation of actions. They would, in my
opinion, require a supplementation of the truth-functional semantics by
a wider semantic theory of linguistic competence as well as by a
universal-pragmatic theory of communicative competence 8 for those
cases where human beings can and must compensate, so to speak, for
the non-realization of Searle's "principle of expressibility ''9 by
means like irony, metaphors, "conversational implicatures", etc. (I shall
come back to this point later.)
Now, in his present paper Professor Davidson takes precisely these
phenomena of "utterer' s occasion-meaning" (to speak along with
Grice) as an occasion and motive for, at least partly, revising his
previous theory of radical interpretation. In this context, he interes-
tingly brings under one head phenomena that, at least on the speaker' s
22 KAR L - OT T O AP E L
side, do not only bear witness for the triumphs, so to speak, of the
compensative function of the communicative competence, but rather
merely for a deficiency of the linguistic competence. For the special
motive of this revision is delivered, I understand, by the phenomenon of
malapropism by ignorance or inadvertence. (I shall come back to this
point too.)
Now, in what respect, or to what extent, has Professor Davidson in
fact revised his former position?
His new thesis concerning the necessary preconditions of radical
interpretation denies, I understand, the presupposition that any two
communication-partners must share a common language or, for that
matter, a common theory about a language-system. The notion of such
a thing as a socially shared rule-system of a common language to be
learned and finally mastered dissolves itself: "No two speakers need
speak the same language"; 1 "We must give up the' idea of a clearly
defined shared structure which language users master and then apply to
c a s e s . ' ' 1 1
What is needed instead is only "a shared way of interpreting a
speaker, ''12 or as it is stated in a principle of "correspondence": "The
speaker must know how his speech will be interpreted, while the
interpreter must know how the speaker intends his speech to be
interpreted. Each knows what the other knows about how to interpret
the speaker. ''13 Precisely this reciprocal knowledge of speakers and
interpreters seems to be the content of what Professor Davidson now
calls the "passing theory" on which the communication-partners must
"converge from time to time," 14 i.e., "from utterance to utterance". 15
Listening to these statements, one might think that there is no longer
any essential difference between Professor Davidson' s semanticist ap-
proach and the intentionalist approach of P. Grice, which culminated in
the circle of reflective reciprocity of intentions and expectations
between the speaker and the interpreter.
Now, this presumption seems to be precipitate, I understand; for
Professor Davidson still insists on the presupposition of the interpreter's
having a linguistic background, as he made clear in his first thesis. Thus
he should still oppose the assumption that human intentions or beliefs
-- like those one possibly might attribute to a dog - could be somehow
understood without presupposing some kind of semantic theory. Hence
he would still be unable to agree with Grice' s programme of a reduction
of our understanding of the "meanings of utterance types" to a
COMMENTS ON DAVI DSON 23
pre-linguistic understanding of intentions, I suppose.
But I am not sure about his possible answer with regard to this
question. Let us therefore try to put it to a test by an example.
P. Grice suggests that a shop merchant in Port Said who sees a British
tourist could mean that the tourist should come in by saying to him with
an alluring smile the Arabic for "You pig of an Englishman." 16 Could
Professor Davidson agree with this judgment? I ask this question
because I am inclined to consider Grice's example to be a confusion
between genuine verbal communication and what I would call an act of
feigned speech that stands in the service of a strategic action, in this
case of the strategy of touting customers. Of course, if the tourist could
take the unknown Arabic words as an invitation to come in, the
merchant would have succeeded in performing an extra-verbal act of
communication. But could he have meant by his cynical verbal
utterance that the tourist should come in?
Grice does and must think so on his premisses. I would deny the
question for the reason that the merchant did not fulfill the condition of
genuinely sharing the meaning of his verbal utterance with his com-
munication-partner. 17 I could think that Professor Davids0n would
even now agree with me on the ground that the merchant did not really
share his way of interpreting, or, more precisely, his passing semantic
theory, with the tourist. What he in fact shared with his communication-
partner was at best, one could say, the extra-verbal meaning of his
invitation-gesture. And this is obviously not enough for the tourist to
interpret the fine cynical intention of the shop merchant.
But I am not sure whether my attempted assessment of the im-
plications of Davidson' s new theory is correct. Couldn' t one say that the
"utterer' s occasion meaning" of the sentence "You pig of an English-
man!" was just "Please, come in!" On this account, the English tourist
had just to adjust his "prior" theory of Arabic, in order to converge
with the "passing theory" of the merchant. The fact that his "prior
theory" was not a theory at all would be no obstacle for developing a
correct "passing theory" by just correlating the utterance of the Arabic
sentence with the obvious fact that the merchant wished to invite him to
come in. For the "prior theory", on Professor Davidson's new account,
is no longer to be equated to that of a shared language (i.e., a "learnable
common core of . . . shared grammar or rules" 18) but merely to "the
ideolect of the speaker that the interpreter is in a position to take into
account before the utterance begins". 19 Hence also the tourist's zero-
24 KARL- OTTO APEL
t heor y of Ar abi c may be consi der ed as a l i mi t -case of a "pr i or t heor y",
and this is preci sel y what t he Por t Said mer chant does by suggest i ng t o
t he t ouri st t hat " You pig of an Engl i s hman! " means " Co me i n!" So this
woul d j ust be t he begi nni ng of t he t ouri st ' s devel opi ng a semant i c
t heor y of Ar abi c in t he sense of "r adi cal i nt er pr et at i on".
I t hi nk i ndeed t hat this last i nt er pr et at i on woul d be an unavoi dabl e
consequence of Professor Davi dson' s gi vi ng up t he i dea t hat a
semant i c t heor y of ver bal i nt er pr et at i on must be an account of a syst em
of synt act i c and semant i c rules t hat mor e or less defi ni t el y excl ude, and
t her eby imply, t he possibility of false appl i cat i ons in f avour of a t heor y
t hat changes " f r om ut t er ance to ut t er ance" . But why shoul d we need
such a st r ange semant i c t heor y?
Professor Davi dson' s answer, I under st and, is: because we need a
t heor y of radi cal i nt er pr et at i on t hat is adequat e for i nt erpret i ng t he
occasi on- meani ng of part i cul ar sent ences as ut t er ed by part i cul ar
speakers. In or der to make his semant i c t heor y sui t ed for this purpose,
he is pr epar ed t o sacrifice t he i dea of a basic f r amewor k of cat egori es or
rules as const i t ut i ng t he cor e of a semant i c t heory. 2
Now this pri ce seems to me (to be) t oo high, and mor eover , it seems
t o me unnecessar y t o pay it. For why shoul d a t heor y concer ni ng rules
be made sui t ed t o cover even peopl e' s failures t o fol l ow t he rules? Such
an ambi t i on seems t o me even to be based on a mi sunder st andi ng of t he
ver y concept of a rul e t hat must i mpl y its bei ng not fol l owed in
except i onal cases. The gener al pr obl em to be sol ved - t he pr obl em of
our under st andi ng t he occasi on- meani ng of ut t er ances even in t hose
cases wher e its ver bal expressi on devi at es f r om t he so-cal l ed nor mal or
convent i onal expressi on by l anguage - may be bet t er sol ved by a
di vi si on of l abor, so t o speak, bet ween a semant i c t heor y of linguistic
compet ence (i.e., of t he l anguage- syst em as a syst em of convent i onal
rules t hat may event ual l y even be part l y gr ounded on a uni versal t heor y
of all possible human grammars) and, on t he ot her hand, a uni versal -
pr agmat i c t heor y of communi cat i ve compet ence. 21
Such a di vi si on of l abor woul d fit in wi t h t he general fact t hat human
i nst i t ut i ons - and t hus t he i nst i t ut i on of a l anguage - by convent i onal
rules fulfill t he f unct i on of unbur deni ng us f r om i nt ent i onal decisions in
nor mal cases 2z and preci sel y, t hereby fail t o satisfy our special i nt ent i ons
in par t i cul ar cases. Thus most cases of a speaker' s devi at i ng f r om t he
nor mal (linguistic) usage and all cases of t he i nt er pr et er ' s under st andi ng
t hose ut t er ances coul d be account ed for by t he compensat i ve f unct i on
COMMENTS ON DAVI DSON 25
of the communicative competence. Only those cases where a creative
speaker by his very special deviatings from common usage should
influence the common usage would seriously raise problems for the
semantic theory; whereas (whilst) cases of malapropism by ignorance
or inadvertence would clearly raise only problems for, or concerning,
the compensative function of the interpreter' s communicative com-
petence. They would cease to do so only in those cases where they
would amount to a general tendency towards changing the usage in
the speech-community, as, e.g., in the case mentioned by Professor
Davidson where "malaprop" is getting to be used in the place of
"malapropism". (Similarly in German the slang-word "Studiker" could
possibly come to be used in the place of "Student".)
Finally, one remark on Professor Davidson' s most radical revision:
on the suggestion, that we must abandon "not only the ordinary notion
of language", but must erase "the boundary between knowing a
language and knowing our way around in the world generally". 23 This
suggestion, it seems to me, amounts in its last consequence to dissolving
one of the key notions of this century' s convergence in philosophy, the
notion that sharing public meanings by communication with co-
subj ects of cognition is a transcendental condition of the possibility of
cognition in the sense of intersubjectively valid knowledge; and thus it
seems to amount to restoring the methodical solipsism of a Cartesian or
Lockean epistemology. 24
If the idea that our knowledge about the world already presupposes
our sharing a common language had to be dissolved as a myth of
this century, as one could think, then it might indeed be easier to come
to terms with the intricate problem of learning one' s first language,
since this achievement of knowing had no longer to be conceived as a
special type of knowledge that in a sense must precede all knowing
concerning the world. Yet, on the other hand, I should ask what sense
would then remain of that great insight inherent in Professor David-
son's "principle of charity" that sharing linguistic meaning means
"sharing a picture of the world that must, in its large features, be true"?
For it is only with respect to communication-partners, i.e., co-subj ects
of speech, that we can learn to share the truth about the world.
NOTES
l Donald Davidson, ' A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs' . My quotations are from the type
script.
26 KAR L - OT T O AP E L
2 Donal d Davidson, ' Trut h and Meaning' , Synthese 17 (1967), 304-323 ' Radical
Interpretation' Dialectica 27 (1973), 313-327; ' Thought and Tal k' , Dialectica 31 (1977),
7-23.
3 Cf. H. P. Grice, ' Meani ng' , Philosophical Review 66 (1957) 377-388; ' Ut t er er ' s
Meaning and Intentions' , Philosophical Review 78 147-177.
4 Cf. Davidson, ' Thought and Tal k' , p. 15.
5 Donal d Davidson, ' The Met hod of Trut h in Metaphysics' , Midwest Studies in Philoso-
phy II (1977) 224-254.
6 Ibid., p. 244.
7 Cf. H. P. Gri ce ' Logi c and Conver sat i on' , i n P. Col e and J. L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax
and Semantics, Vol. III, New York, 1975, pp. 41-58.
8 Cf. J. Habermas, ' Towards a Theory of Communi cat i ve Compet ence' , Inquiry 13
(1970), 360-375; ' Was heiBt Uni versal pragmat i k?' in K. -O. Apel (ed.), Spraehpragmatik
und Philosophie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M., 1976 pp. 174-272; K. -O. Apel, ' Two
Paradigms in the Philosophy of Language' , in D. Ihde, D. Pellaurer and D. Tracy (eds.),
Meaning and Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Paul Ricoeur (forthcoming).
9 See J. R. Searle, Speech Acts; and my critical discussion in K. -O. Apel, ' Sprechakt-
theorie and Begriindtmg ethischer Normen' , in K. Lorenz (ed.), Konstruktionen versus
Positionen: PaulLorenzen zum 60. Geburtstag, W. de Gruyter, Bedi nl 1979, Vol. 2, pp.
37-107.
1o Donal d Davidson, ' A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs' , p. 7.
11 Ibid., p. 11.
12 Ibid., p. 7.
13 Ibid., p. 4.
14 Ibid., p. 21.
15 Ibid., p. 20.
16 H. P. Grice, ' Ot t erer' s Meaning and Intentions' p. 162.
17 For a thorough discussion of Gri ce' s position cf. my paper ' Intentions, Conventions,
and Reference to Things: Comment s on some Disparities in Analytic Philosophy of
Meani ng' in H. Parret and J. Bonveresse (eds.), Meaning and Understanding, W. de
Gruyter, Berlin, 1981, pp. 79-111.
is Davidson, ' A Ni ce Derangement ' , p. 21.
19 Ibid., p. 17.
2o Ibid., p. 18.
21 Cf. notes 8 and 9.
22 Cf. A. Gehlen, Der Mensch, l l t h ed., Athen~ium, Bonn 1976 and Urmensch and
Sptitkultur, Atheniium, Bonn, 1956.
23 Davidson, ' A Nice Der angement ' p. 22.
24 Cf. my argument against methodical solipsism in K. -O. Apel, Towards a Trans-
formalion of Philosophy, Rout l edge and Kegan Paul, London, 1979.
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